Flint, MI — The City of Flint changed its Alert Flint website to include “community updates,” following controversy over a notification to Flint residents about an Easter egg hunt.
On April 6, 2023, Flint used its emergency alert system to send a message to Flint residents about an Easter egg hunt.
The message read, “Please join Mayor Sheldon Neeley for an Easter Egg Hunt today, Thursday, April 6, from 4 to 6 p.m. on the lawn behind Flint City Hall. This event is free for kids ages 0-11 years old. We hope to see you there.”
The event was planned by the City of Flint and was co-sponsored by Molina Healthcare, Priority Waste and Neeley through a private donation, Flint’s acting communications director Caitie O’Neill wrote in an email. Neeley hosted Easter egg hunts prior to being elected mayor of Flint.
“It was not funded by the mayor’s PAC, as some have erroneously speculated,” O’Neill wrote.
A week after the April 6, Easter Egg Hunt notification, the city’s website was changed. Where it previously listed “evacuation/shelter-in-place” as a use of the system, it now says “community updates.”
O’Neill wrote that the list online is representative of Alert Flint, but is not exhaustive of its possible uses.
“The website was changed to more accurately reflect the intended purpose of Alert Flint,” she wrote.
She also wrote that the city is currently trying out different types of messaging to grow and evolve its communication strategies.
William Harris, who is Vice Chairman of the Ethics and Accountability Board, said at the April 10, 2023, city council meeting that the city made a mistake by putting out an alert about the Easter egg hunt, but not about the pump station #5 being overworked.
“It should have been better. You want to put out there with Easter egg hunts and alerts, that should have been the first thing they put out there is to let everybody know in the area that could smell raw sewage,” he said.
Harris told Flint Beat he doesn’t think the city violated any ordinances or policies with its decision to send the egg hunt alert, but it is something he plans to look into.
Immediately following this notification, residents shared mixed reactions on social media. Flint City Councilwoman Tonya Burns took to Facebook, writing, “Emergency alert systems are in place for emergencies only.”
Matthew Herrick commented on Burns’ post, “I’m so sick of this city. People are moving away from Flint because of reasons like this!”
Nayyirah Shariff said she was shocked when she got the egg hunt notification. She said it was already confusing for her to sign up for the alert system, and that it was especially frustrating for her when she got the notification.
“I went online…to just see what [was] on the website when they talked about it…and I…angry,” she said.
Shariff said she does not think the system should be used in that way. She said it’d be better to have an additional system for events or non-emergency notifications.
“It may have been a nice event, like, but does it constitute going out on an emergency alert system,” she said.
Flint resident Joyce Wilson said she doesn’t think this is as big of an issue as people are making it out to be.
“In hindsight, maybe it wasn’t the wisest use of a resource, but can’t you just forgive that mistake and move forward? There are far more serious things to be concerned about,” she said.
In March, Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley announced the new alert system in Flint, stating that its purpose was to send emergency notifications to Flint residents.
At the March 2 press conference, Neeley said that the system would be used for updates in addition to “bad news.” When asked to clarify what those updates could include, Neeley said positive uses of the system would include communications before, during and after emergencies. There was no mention of community events.
This is not the first time that the mayor’s office has changed a website following the controversy. A website bio was edited in 2022 following the discovery that Neeley did not receive a bachelor’s degree from Saginaw Valley State University, rather that he just attended there.
Troy Harper, Director of Government Strategy at OnSolve wrote in an email to Flint Beat that municipalities use CodeRED for both urgent and non-urgent situations.
“Our communities use CodeRED to communicate urgent information, as well as non-urgent critical communications such as road closures, gas leaks, planned power outage, educational outreach or water contamination notices,” he wrote.
He also wrote that there are no requirements on how CodeRED can be used by municipalities.
“We leave the nature of communications up to the discretion of our customers,” he wrote.
Harper also listed community updates as an example of what CodeRED could be used for.
On the CodeRED section of the OnSolve website, it lists the following as uses for the system:
- Missing children or persons
- Evacuation notices
- Police activity and updates
- Severe weather warnings
- Street closures
- Planned power/water outages
- Lockdown advisories
- Viral outbreaks
- First responder and dispatch situational awareness
- Field operative updates
“CodeRED is a cloud-based software solution that has been trusted by government agencies since 1998 to provide real-time information that helps save lives in the community,” the website reads.